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Addicted to Brain Scans

The debate about sex addiction reflects a larger cultural confusion.

Last July, researchers at UCLA reported that the brains of people diagnosed as "hypersexual" do not display distinctive responses to sexual images. The study's authors interpreted their findings as evidence that hypersexuality, defined as a harmful and distressing preoccupation with sex, is not a true addiction or mental disorder.

A week after the UCLA study was published, Ariel Castro pleaded guilty to 937 criminal charges stemming from his kidnapping of three women whom he imprisoned and repeatedly raped over the course of a decade. "I'm not a monster," he insisted at his sentencing hearing. "I'm just sick. I have an addiction, just like an alcoholic has an addiction."

Around the same time, disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned in 2011 after admitting he had "sexted" photos of his genitals to various women, was attempting an improbable political comeback by seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City. His campaign suffered a major setback when it emerged that Weiner, a married man, had continued conducting virtual liaisons with Internet acquaintances even after quitting Congress.

All of these stories raise the question of how we should view people who don't control their sexual urges. Are they addicted to sex in the same way that an alcoholic is bonded to booze or a junkie is hooked on heroin? If so, does that mean they are no longer responsible for their behavior? And to what extent does neuroscientific evidence such as the electroencephalograms (EEGs) used in the UCLA study illuminate these issues? The debate about the nature of hypersexuality exemplifies a broader cultural confusion about addiction, a concept that has been medicalized to the point that people think it means both less and more than it really does.

If I Only Had a Brain Scan

The UCLA study, reported in the journal Socio­affective Neuroscience and Psychology, involved 52 volunteers whose scores on tests of sexual compulsivity were similar to those of "people seeking help for hypersexual problems." The researchers, led by the neuroscientist Nicole Prause, hooked the subjects up to electroencephalographs and showed them pictures that ranged from romantic to sexually explicit. Prause and her colleagues found that the brain responses registered by the machines were related to the subjects' self-reported levels of sexual arousal but not to their hypersexuality scores. "Hypersexuality does not appear to explain brain responses to sexual images any more than just having a high libido," Prause said in a university press release.

The researchers presented their results as evidence that hypersexuality is not really an addiction. "A diagnosis of hypersexuality or sexual addiction is typically associated with people who have sexual urges that feel out of control, who engage frequently in sexual behavior, who have suffered consequences such as divorce or economic ruin as a result of their behaviors, and who have a poor ability to reduce those behaviors," the press release noted. But according to Prause and her colleagues, "such symptoms are not necessarily representative of an addiction-in fact, nonpathological, high sexual desire could also explain this cluster of problems."

For someone unblinded by neuroscience, it is hard to make sense of this explanation. Sex addiction is defined by a pattern of behavior, a pattern exhibited by the subjects in this study, who reported that their sexual preoccupations and actions were so unrestrained that these had gotten them into trouble at home or work. Are these problems less real because their EEG tests were not abnormal? If the essence of addiction is a life-disrupting attachment that continues despite undesirable consequences, why does it matter whether Prause's subjects displayed a special "P300 response"?

Prause's reliance on EEG data to cast doubt on the reality of the problems reported by her subjects is an example of what I call "neuroreductionism": the tendency to perceive human experiences as valid or genuine only when they can be linked to measurable brain activity. In their recent book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, Oasis Clinic psychiatrist Sally Satel and Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld detail the faulty science and logic underlying this mindset.

Neuroreductionism is the latest twist on the medicalization of addiction. Medicine has come up with wave after wave of biological explanations for addiction, ranging from the belief that narcotics such as heroin have special chemical effects that cause addiction to wild claims implicating the endorphins as addictive culprits. All these theories posit that addiction is caused by the things to which people become addicted.

My view, by contrast, is that people can become addicted to anything, whether drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, gambling, love, or sex, if it is the focus of an encapsulating experience that alleviates bad feelings and buttresses their self-esteem. Contrary to the common view of addiction as a choice-nullifying disease, this approach holds people accountable for their actions. Addicts are actively involved in building their attachments and can modify their behavior when they have an incentive to do so. Alcoholics drink moderately at home with their parents, for instance, and addicted smokers wait all morning during work until they can smoke outdoors. They might prefer to indulge their addictive impulses instantly, but those impulses can be resisted and ultimately eliminated.

Likewise, many highly sexual people do not act on their urges in ways that create problems. Even among those who qualify for the "hypersexual" label, the vast majority do not kidnap women and rape them. Since sex addicts clearly can conform to social expectations, legal limits, and moral principles, it is right to punish those who, like Ariel Castro, egregiously fail to do so.

Anthony Weiner's transgressions were trivial in comparison with Castro's. But his evident lack of self-control still prompted debate about exactly what his problem was.

"The candidate's behavior meets a fundamental criterion for addiction: his exhibitionist acts continued despite negative consequences," Time's health writer Maia Szalavitz claimed. "It's hard to imagine a better example of compulsive repetition: although he lost his job and put his marriage, family and entire political future at risk, the former Congressman nonetheless engaged again in the exact type of online behavior that brought him to public humiliation."

Yet Szalavitz was not ready to call Weiner an addict. "It's still not clear whether sexual compulsions qualify as an addiction," she said. "The [UCLA study] argued that they don't, because hypersexual people process sexual cues just like normal people do-and differently from the way addicts respond to drug cues. But the question is far from resolved. And whatever you want to call the issue, Weiner still has a problem, since compulsions can be just as disruptive as addictions, and equally difficult to overcome."

Szalavitz is at odds with herself. She says Weiner-who displayed the defining characteristic of addiction, persistence in destructive behavior-may not have been truly addicted because scientists found that sex addicts don't have special brain responses to sexual stimuli. Instead, Weiner may suffer from a destructive sexual compulsion. But that is a distinction without a difference. Szalavitz, who is as well-informed on addiction and drugs as anyone who has ever written for a mainstream news outlet, still gets tripped up by neuroreductionism. According to this way of thinking, if a person behaves like an addict but doesn't produce the right brain scan, he has to be called something else.

Before Cocaine Was Addictive

Although addiction historically referred to just about any strong attachment or hard-to-break habit, physicians began using the term to describe a medical syndrome at the turn of the 20th century. They had in mind addiction to drugs. Specifically, they had in mind addiction to opiates, since they erroneously believed that only opiates caused tolerance (a need for larger doses to achieve the same effect) and "physical dependence" (withdrawal symptoms). Alcohol and barbiturates were added to the list later, but physicians and pharmacologists continued to describe other drugs as merely "habituating." The U.S. surgeon general's landmark 1964 report on the health hazards of smoking, for instance, deemed nicotine habituating but not addictive. The same distinction was applied to cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, and various other drugs.

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  • Outlaw||

    The whole sex addiction thing is an excuse pansy guys use for cheating on their significant other and wives use for cheating on their boyfriends or husbands.

    "I couldn't help it! I'm addicted!"

    No, your significant other probably isn't putting out enough, became intolerable, lacks confidence, and/or has let themselves go physically so you get some on the side.

    Should've chosen wisely or never gotten married in the first place.

    Warty: And how do we begin to covet, Shreek? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.

    Shreek: No. We just...

    Warty: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Shreek? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?

  • lap83||

    So instead of blaming adddiction, cheaters should blame their significant other?

  • Outlaw||

    And themselves!

  • VicRattlehead||

    I concur, sex is not an addiction nor should it be treated as an illness, people just need to find those who are sexually accommodating to themselves instead of trying to force failed relationships with bad sex

  • Loki||

    Once again, South Park has it about right: addicts just rack-a-disciprine!

  • VicRattlehead||

    people who willfully engage in bad habits with consistent bad outcomes lack discipline, Addicts have to feed the addiction or suffer the consequences their own body will wreak upon them as it screams from every nerve ending for another fix
    You clearly have no concept of this

  • Tommy_Grand||

    “For someone unblinded by neuroscience, it is hard to make sense of this explanation.”

    I've been blinded by neuro-science (and sex-addicted) since '82. miss sakamoto = way hot.

  • VicRattlehead||

    Bullshit, It took a week to get over physical withdrawl from alcohol and damn near a year of abstinence to be able to walk into a bar without sweating and getting anxious. this is addiction
    on the converse
    I play video games as much as humanly possible, however it has never once stopped me from keeping my house clean, taking care of my kid, eating food, or sleeping. without games my life continues without a trip to the ER from withdrawl in fact I haven't had more than 20 mins for it in 3 days
    Bad habits are not addictions.. if there is no physical pain from quitting you haven't been truly addicted you just lack self control
    this article does a huge dis-service to anyone who actually is having a problem, you cannot "out grow" addiction and you cant cure it, you either are predisposed or not and if you want to stop and find you cant go get help, AA is not a cult it works great because only other addicts will ever understand addiction, no science can define the feelings and the fear its something you have to live through to be able to talk about. fucking idiot

  • PM||

    no science can define the feelings and the fear its something you have to live through to be able to talk about. fucking idiot

    Yet just a few sentences previously you were willing to completely dismiss the feelings and fear that people with different bad habits have because they don't feel physical pain as a result of quitting. You can't have it both ways. If addiction is defined strictly in terms of physical withdrawal then the feelings and fears you're experiencing are as meaningless as the feelings and fears that anybody feels after kicking their habits that produce no physical discomfort. That was kind of the point of the article.

  • VicRattlehead||

    I never dismissed it, i just said its different, the point of the article was that the results were the same.
    What I said is Addiction and Bad Habits are vastly different
    you cannot send someone to rehab for 28 days and expect them to quit a bad habit on the inverse you can send someone to rehab for 28 days and expect that the physical withdrawal (addiction) has subsided from opiates, alcohol, or amphetamines
    Addiction is the physical experience of pain from not having something
    A bad habit is drinking again after a 28 day program, which may be a result of previous addiction but is not the result of current addiction, it is the result of personal choice at that point, granted many people fresh out of rehab cannot think very clearly and choose to start their addiction back up without seeking outside help.

  • jay_dubya||

    Im not sure that it is helpful to attempt to widen the descriptive umbrella of the "addiction" label on the one hand and to attempt to combat the "medicalization" of addictive behavior on the other hand. Lets be frank: there *are* significant differences in what happens to someone who is addicted to heroin and someone who is "addicted" to food, or sex. The compulsive use of opiates is directly life threatening, withdrawal symptoms are incapacitating and in a caring environment necessitate pharmaceutical intervention (in the case of methadone, "cold-turkey" withdrawal symptoms alone can be life threatening). Heroin addicts and food/sex "addicts" should not be treated using the same methodology - abstinence, while not the only option, is a viable option for heroin addicts in a way that is simply not possible for food or drug addicts.

  • jay_dubya||

    IMO, food or sex "addicts" do not require medical intervention of any kind. They require ethical and/or behavioral modification intervention. Its important to recognize that regardless of whatever spin psychologists might try to put on things, ethical and behavioral modification is not medicine. Pharmaceutical/medical-only intervention is sensical among heroin addicts in ways that it is not sensical for food/sex addicts. Things like methadone, naltrexone and suboxone should be available cheaply and easily for whoever needs them with proper education. Needle exchange and paraphernalia handouts allow heroin addicts to survive with significantly less risk of immediate death when looking solely at primary risks such as thrombosis and necrosis from using sh*t works(Im not talking about AIDS - giving sex addicts condoms is smart but is an AIDS intervention not an addiction intervention).

  • jay_dubya||

    The "addiction" label has over 100 years of baggage, legal and social, associated with it. The idea that simply *being* an addict is grounds for immediate incarceration, even without evidence such as possession, is a widespread reality and an incredibly popular one with no serious opposition through state legislation like the Baker and Marchmann Acts (even so-called "legalization" people support "medical" intervention, a "medicine" by which of course is meant involuntary incarceration in a facility where you are forced to espouse a belief and god and admit your sins, etc.) For this reason alone, it is sensible to begin to *retract* the use of the "addiction" label and the creation of an alternate term for those who struggle with compulsive issues that do not involve substance use. I can't stress the distinction enough. If your problem is you f*ck too much, the solution is not to f*ck. You might want to f*ck, which would be the entire set of "symptoms" of addiction. I've known patients who have used multiple opiates including methadone who, if they were to simply stop, would have an aneurysm.

    It's not the same.

  • PM||

    Using "addiction" to refer exclusively to the psychological aspects of the compulsion may be more useful than carving out "real" addictions that require medical intervention from "non-addictions" that do not require medical intervention, even though the underlying compulsion - the behavioral problem - is the actual driver of both types. You don't get physically dependent on drugs to the extent you describe from the occasional hit - that's every bit as much a compulsion/behavioral problem as overeating or "wanting to fuck a lot" or any other pleasure-seeking activity. Having separate terms for the psychological problem and the physical withdrawal symptoms may be useful, but I'm not sure if throwing out a useful word because of historically ambiguous usage is necessarily the best way to accomplish it.

  • VicRattlehead||

    Not even close to the same, I still remember only bits and pieces coming out of alcoholism, I wouldn't have gone to rehab if I hadn't been forced to. At the time I was completely fine with being wasted off my ass 24/7 because i only considered it a bad habit since some person like the one who wrote this article wrote a similar one comparing things the opposite way, and since as an addict i will only recognize information that supports the idea that i am not an addict i took it as a license to drink myself into oblivion after rehab for another 3 years until I was losing my mind trying to stop but not being able to make it past 10AM without some kind of drink....sex, gambling, porn not so much

  • Riven||

    Came here for a lesson in love, but it turns out I suffer from a very sexy learning disability...

  • Brian_N_Cols_OH||

    First of all, addicts in a recovery program are not taught to believe that they aren't responible for their actions - quite the contrary. This author continually makes comments about 12 step programs that are simply not true.

    As for whether addiction is a disease, I find little point in arguing about it. The problem with all of the logic is this: any rational person wouldn't make those kinds of choices. But that's just it - you're making an assumption that an addicted person has full capacities of rational thinking. They don't, otherwise they wouldn't do the things they do.

    What we all need to recognize is that we're dealing with people who's addiction has has changed how they think. The brain has created new pathways, and they are the wrong ones. So, however you describe it, it doesn't change the fact that breaking that behavior will take some work to create new pathways in the brain - very few people can do this over night and I've watched a lot of friends die because they thought they could do it without help. Sexual addictions are no different and we should'nt ignore the fact that people suffering from addictions often commit suicide.

    Bottom line, you can consider addiction whatever you want - it doesn't change the realities. If you haven't experienced it first or second hand, then you probably aren't qualified to make many judgments on the issue. The reality is that people are harmed and that these behaviors almost always require professional help to fully recover.

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